Nearly two decades have passed since El Salvador’s civil war ended, but the 1980 assassination of a Roman Catholic archbishop may prove highly influential when voters elect a new president next spring.
For many Salvadorans over 30, the disappearance of loved ones and the chatter of machine guns remain far more real than the 1992 agreement that disarmed the leftist guerillas and government-sponsored death squads. It means little to them that the Salvadoran economy has expanded since switching to the American dollar in 2001, that McDonald’s restaurants are increasingly more visible on the streets than M-16 rifles, or that Salvadoran village girls now strut around in Britney Spears-style outfits rather than traditional campesino attire. The Christian martyrs of the past are what matter. And within that crowd, no one is remembered more vividly than the politically outspoken Archbishop Oscar A. Romero, shot through the heart by a sniper as he celebrated Mass 28 years ago.
Archbishop Romero’s highly publicized killing is widely viewed as the first salvo in the Salvadoran Civil War, which claimed 75,000 lives between 1980 and 1992. But few outside this Central American nation may realize how important he remains to the Salvadoran political scene, where religion drives much of the vote. More than anyone else, Romero seems to be inspiring what may become the first leftist political victory in Salvadoran history when voters cast ballots for president and the legislative assembly in March 2009.
In recent polls for these contests,the leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) has enjoyed wide leads over the right-wing National Republican Alliance (ARENA). The ARENA party has held power since 1989. Both parties have their roots in the violent guerilla and paramilitary organizations of the 1970 and 1980s that were condemned by Romero.
Many observers have attributed the ascendancy of FMLN to the softening of its radical politics, including the selection of moderate former CNN reporter Mauricio Funes to run against ruling party candidate Rodrigo Avila in the presidential race.
Danilo Miranda, a professor in the Department of Sociology and Political Science at San Salvador’s University of Central America (UCA), says ARENA is suffering a loss of popularity after 20 years in power — not unexpected, considering the triumphs of leftist governments in Latin American countries like Venezuela and Chile. According to Miranda, FMLN is capitalizing on voter fatigue with ARENA’s failures in the areas of violence and the economy, which rank in polls as the top two election-year issues.
“The choice of Mauricio Funes as FMLN candidate was a pragmatic decision,” says Miranda. “Funes is a popular figure that comes from the media. Nowadays, television is the main stage in the electoral and political game, and Funes, with his more than two decades in TV journalism, is very comfortable. In opposition, Rodrigo Avila, it is not the best candidate that ARENA could find and he it is not as popular as Funes.”
Nevertheless, he adds, ARENA
is a powerful electoral organization and has a lot of resources ready to use. The triumph is not secure yet for the FMLN. Public opinion is variable, and there are several months before the elections. Moreover, even if FMLN wins the presidency in 2009, it is not probable that it can reach absolute majority in parliament, which they need in order to make decisions and execute actions regarding public policies.
One potential X-factor in the election could be Archbishop Romero, to whom both parties pay homage. They do so because it is impossible to avoid the archbishop’s name recognition with young and old, rich and poor. Each week, pilgrims pour into the cavernous crypt of the San Salvador Cathedral to pray before his tomb. Grown men and women approach on their knees, whispering, “Pray for me.” Although the cathedral crypt houses the tombs of San Salvador’s other archbishops, they are all interred in an unadorned mausoleum. Romero lies beneath a regal bronze tomb bearing his sculpted image and pastoral staff, with four angels standing guard at the corners. On the tomb itself, a red ball rests in the center of the statue’s chest, symbolizing the sniper’s bullet that killed him.
Salvadorans typically use the words “martyr” or “communist” in reference to the archbishop, who has become the best-known public figure in their history. Walking the streets of the capital, one cannot escape his image. The shy smile of the bespectacled cleric pops out from buildings and T-shirts, key chains, and religious icons — the latter depicting “Saint Oscar Romero of the Americas” as a white robed martyr framed by a halo and whirling helicopters.
Even the ruling ARENA party, whose founder, Roberto D’Aubisson, was identified in a 1993 United Nations report as the paramilitary leader who ordered Romero’s assassination, acknowledges the archbishop’s status with certain qualifications. The ruling ARENA party still refuses publicly to acknowledge its involvement in his death. This only adds to the sense of many FMLN supporters that the defeat of ARENA in next year’s election would represent a comeuppance.
Salvadorans have many tragedies to look back upon — the eradication of their indigenous population in a 1932 rebellion, the 1981 massacre of hundreds of peasants in the village of Mozote, the 1989 killing of six Jesuit priests and two women at UCA. International outcry over the Jesuit deaths is sometimes credited with hastening the 1992 peace accords, a sort of bookend to the war begun with Romero’s assassination. But nothing is so iconic in the public imagination of this Catholic nation as the image of the archbishop being gunned down at the altar. In the violent but intensely religious atmosphere of Central America, the killing of peasants was an old story in 1980. The murder of a Roman Catholic archbishop was different.
“Romero and the martyrs continue to be an inspiration as moral models in a very corrupt and cruel situation,” says Rev. Dean Brackley, a Jesuit priest who teaches at UCA. “In that sense they inspire people, probably a minority of people, who push for change. It is always a minority that pushes for change, and El Salvador is no exception.”
Romero’s assassination came during a period of terrorist activity just before the war’s outset. His appointment as archbishop in February 1977 was endorsed as a good compromise by the ruling government: He was friendly toward all, being known in his previous diocese for promoting non-political devotions (like the Legion of Mary and Cursillo movements) and works like Alcoholics Anonymous, but he rarely voiced his opinion on political issues.
But the death of Rev. Rutilio Grande, a close friend and Jesuit priest targeted for assassination because of his political activism among the campesinos, is believed to have radicalized the archbishop. Just a few weeks after Romero’s installation, Father Grande, a 72-year old man, and a 16-year-old boy were gunned down as they drove to religious services in the rural town of El Paisnal. Their deaths galvanized the archbishop, who gathered the bodies at the cathedral for a single Sunday Mass in front of the nation. Romero wrote to President Molina demanding a national investigation, threatening to boycott government events when his request was ignored.
As violence between guerillas and paramilitary groups escalated over the next three years, Romero faced additional funerals for assassinated clerics and Catholic laity. He became more outspoken on behalf of the poor peasants who were disproportionately among the fatalities, speaking out against the government in sermons broadcast nationwide via radio.
When the archbishop demanded — in a widely broadcast sermon a few days before his death — that the government “stop the repressions,” the transformation from quiet compromiser into outspoken social critic was complete. It was apparently the final straw: On March 24, 1980, a small vehicle pulled up at the back of the chapel for a Carmelite hospital where the archbishop was celebrating Mass. A paramilitary sniper shot Romero through the heart, spilling his blood over the altar.
The murder of Archbishop Romero, who had been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and received honorary doctorates in the U.S. and Belgium, sparked an international outcry. Thousands flocked to his funeral Mass, which was interrupted by the explosion of a bomb in the San Salvador Cathedral square, with dozens of people dying in the general panic as military snipers fired from rooftops. As gunshots rang out, the papal nuncio hurriedly buried the archbishop without finishing the Mass.
These stories still haunt voters today. When one speaks to the average FMLN supporter, it is clear that their issues go back to one thing: the civil war. For many, an electoral victory would represent the vindication of their experiences of a war that they feel has been whitewashed in official Salvadoran history books. Even more publicly, it would vindicate their fidelity to Archbishop Romero’s legacy, even though most leftists concede that he would never have endorsed their social positions on issues like abortion and economics.
“Romero and the martyrs remain a symbol of the brutal past of the war,” says Father Brackley. “Wounds remain open.”
Leftist Salvadorans also connect ARENA to the killing of the six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and her 16-year-old daughter at the UCA in November 1989. According to UN reports, the priests were executed on government orders after being placed on a list of suspected communists. Although several soldiers were eventually jailed in connection with the crime after a highly publicized trial, the ARENA government has never acknowledged complicity in the killings.
Father Brackley, who came to the UCA in 1990 to replace one of six assassinated Jesuits, says the Salvadoran Right has been “unchastened and arrogant” for the past 20 years.
“Although the martyrs won’t influence voting directly, what will happen if the party of the former guerillas comes to power?” asks Brackley. “The truth about the war, covered up so long, will be harder to cover up. The truth, according to the UN Truth Commission, is that the government practiced state terror.”
Jesuit priests have converted part of their dead colleagues’ residence into a museum called the Centro Monseñor Romero, further deepening their connection to the slain. The museum features artifacts and personal items from the six Jesuits and two women, including the bloodstained clothing they were wearing at the time of death.
Other exhibits feature clothing and personal items belonging to Archbishop Romero and to Father Grande, including the bullet-torn clerical shirt worn by the latter when he was gunned down on the road to Aguilares. The small room where the archbishop lived at the Carmelite hospital is also a museum.
For the people who flock reverently to these sites, the “martyrs of El Salvador” were not communists or leftists, but faithful Catholics killed for taking a public stand against terrorism.